Walking the Labyrinth: The Feminine Voice in Myth

Emilys Picture

Having come through the pandemic as a strong community at Pacifica, there is a delight and a joy in convening once again on campus for the 2022-23 school year, which our reopening conference, “Portals to the Imaginal: Re-Visioning Depth Psychology for the 21st Century”, will celebrate. Emily Chow-Kambitsch, Co-Chair and Associate Core Faculty in our Mythological Studies program, will be presenting a paper on “Women’s Memoirs in Greek Tragedy,” as well as facilitating “Mythic Meditation: Labyrinth.” I’m delighted to be speaking to Emily about her work.

Angela: Let’s begin with the thing that first caught my eye and imagination, the labyrinth. I count visiting the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral, cast in the colors of stained glass reflections, as one of the most beautiful experiences of my life. Yet that is a representation of the labyrinth that is far from the mysterious maze in which one might become lost, might never emerge, and beware the Minotaur lurking at the heart of it. Do you conceive of the labyrinth as a metaphor for the psyche, that when we explore within, we may expect to meet the mystery, become lost, and face what we fear? Why would anyone set foot into a maze they might not emerge from?

Emily: Ah, yet another testimony to the beauty of the Chartres Cathedral and labyrinth! One day I hope to visit. Indeed, this labyrinth, while apparently thought by some to have been intended as a representation of Christ’s descent into Hell, although harrowing (should this conjecture be true), is as you say rather less intimidating in its appearance than the image the Cretan labyrinth, the home of the Minotaur, often brings to the mind’s eye.

I think there is something inherently captivating and foreboding about the idea of entering a maze which you know contains a monster (the Minotaur), and its own inventor (Daedalus) and his son (Icarus) who are also imprisoned there. There is a mixture of agency and surrender associated with the archetypal journey into the labyrinth. One can take whichever turns one wishes with a professed intention, though one cannot know what one will meet along the way and whether the journey will fulfill the intention. Yet, there is always a guiding principle, symbolized by the thread held by the princess Ariadne, who stands at the entrance and provides the exit strategy, while the hero Theseus enters the labyrinth to kill the Minotaur and save his people from being sacrificed as tribute in future.

So if we look to the labyrinth as psyche, or perhaps world-as-labyrinth-as-psyche, we can observe our tendencies of movement. Do we lose the thread of our guiding principle? Are we looking for the monster? The inventor? Some other aspect that has been lost in the transmission of this tale?

But if we take the symbol of the labyrinth from the perspectives of Theseus, the Minotaur, Daedalus, for Christ (if we accept the above conjecture), we might recognize the labyrinth perhaps as not the totality of the psyche, but a part that is a holding place for our learning, an inner confrontation, perhaps a leap of faith. It is not a forever-place of fear, but it is a place of mystery we can enter into temporarily, where we have the agency to go as deeply as we feel safe, with our guiding principle in hand.

Angela: How do you work with the labyrinth in the experiential meditation you’re presenting for “Portals to the Imaginal: Re-Visioning Depth Psychology for the 21st Century,” and what might people expect to experience or learn? Is this experience for everyone?

Pacificas genesis was in response in the Vietnam War and the cultural upheaval of the 1970s (13)Emily: “Mythic Meditation: Labyrinth” is inspired by a similar session I have led at a local yoga studio, where I completed my yoga teacher training back in 2019. Periodically I lead workshops there on Myth and Movement. I have recently been co-facilitating these with local 5Rhythms teacher Kiaora Fox, who offers a wonderful supplementary movement journey of the 5Rhythms lineage as a complement to the themes of the focal myth we explore.

For the Portals to the Imaginal conference, this one will be less movement-oriented, to befit the fact that we have a whole day of papers to attend and I imagine we would not wish to do so after exerting ourselves vigorously! Yet the framework will be similar:

First, I retell the story – tell it, not read it; the story emerges differently every time it is told. It will be based on the story of Theseus, Ariadne, and the Minotaur from Ovid’s 1st-century BCE Latin epic Metamorphoses, though I will ask Ovid’s forgiveness for the changes I choose to make to his tale in present company!

Second, I guide the participants through a meditation exercise in revisiting central themes, sequences, and characters from the story from their own imaginal and embodied perspective, with the help of an instrumental soundtrack. My guidance generally consists of prompting questions “what is your hero experiencing as he/she/they stands on the threshold of the labyrinth?” “What is the texture, the temperature of the labyrinth? How high are the walls?” As mentioned in response to the above question, participants have agency in deciding how, or whether to enter or not, or which characters or themes they want to explore, or whether they want to change the story.

Third, we leave time for some integrative journaling and reflection for those who wish to share.

The principle is that whenever we hear a story, we give it a home in our bodies, our psyches. We receive it and it begins to move us, even if it is a story that we do not particularly like. The repulsion moves us into action, or at least reflection. This “Mythic Meditation” practice is really an opportunity for those participating to review a “case study” of a story and what the (embodied) imagination does with it.

So, this workshop is for you, if the above sounds of interest! Do remember that you are encouraged to participate as you feel called and to your comfort level!

Angela: Your graduate work in the UK began with your Oxford Master’s thesis on grief in Seneca’s writings on consolation and culminated in your UCL PhD dissertation, “Emotions in Ben-Hur (1880-1931): Dynamics of Emotion in Texts, Reception Contexts, and Audience Responses in the United States,” which integrated “approaches from classical reception studies, American literature and social history, film studies and theatre studies.” Here I can see the beginnings of an academic path that might find its way to Pacifica! Although anyone who has studied at Oxford or Cambridge might speculate that a thesis centered on emotions is a little unusual for that environment. What was your experience as a scholar there, and does it inform your current teaching at Pacifica on “Greek and Roman Mythology” and “The Embodied Mythic Imagination”?

Emily: Well, interestingly enough, when I was at Oxford in 2011-2012, studies of ancient emotion were really taking off! I was a research assistant in the Oxford Emotions Project, which was run at that time by Angelos Chaniotis, who is now based at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton. Dedicated to the study of emotion words in Greek literature and papyrological sources (the latter of which are a treasure-trove of how “everyday people” wrote about emotions in personal letters, for example), this project helped me to understand the cultural relativity of emotions in their standards of expression (verbal and non-verbal), their associations with categories of identity (especially gender), and their connotation in certain social contexts. My participation in this project taught me the value of studying emotions as an avenue of social history.

Pacificas genesis was in response in the Vietnam War and the cultural upheaval of the 1970s (14)I approach emotions as a crucial aspect of reading any mythological text—looking at the portrayal of emotions therein, and tracking our own emotional response to the text as we receive it. Emotions are both universally perceptible and recognizable, as psychologist Paul Ekman’s work has strongly indicated, and culturally conceived and socially regulated within the historical moment in which they are experienced and talked about. This is why I love to feature modern creative interpretations of Greco-Roman myth in my course dedicated to that lineage, such as Rita Dove’s Mother Love, a beautiful poetic representation of the Demeter-Hades-Persephone myth, and Luis Alfaro’s Mojada, an adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy Medea recently staged at the Getty Villa in Los Angeles, a production which draws special attention to contemporary experiences of Mexican immigrants through the character of Medea, reimagined in 21st-century East LA. And in my course on Ritual and the Embodied Mythic Imagination, a course (in addition to the Greco-Roman myth courses) I inherited from the great Christine Downing, I have included a dimension of cognitive science approaches to ritual studies, which emphasize the embodied experience of rituals. This dimension, while it does elucidate the powerful effect of ritual on community identity, rather neglects the role of myth in ritual, so this is where the depth psychological literature and works from master ritual leaders such as Malidoma Patrice Somé help to bridge the embodied/somatic and the mythic in my approach to this course.

“Mortal women in Greek tragedy are moral agents, social transgressors, and weavers of their own past narratives to inform and navigate their present circumstances of moral injury.” –Emily Chow-Kambitsch, Ph.D.

Angela: Your current work focuses on memoir, life narratives, and in particular, “accentuating the importance of the feminine voice, collective and individual, in codifying personal narrative and collective wisdom in times of social upheaval and conflicting moral systems that demand initiation into new forms of selfhood and community.” It’s fair to classify our current time as being fraught with social upheaval and divides in what constitutes morality. How do you conceive of the role of the feminine voice in the present moment?

Emily: Athenian tragedy of the 5th century BCE, which consists of well-known plays such as Antigone, Oedipus Rex, Medea, Hippolytus, the Oresteia trilogy, and others which are staged all over the world today, originally arose during a time of great social upheaval: plague, the Peloponnesian War with Sparta (which Athens would lose), and the rising influence of radical thinkers like Socrates who challenged the prevailing forms of social discourse and political acumen (Socrates was ultimately sentenced to death for impiety and corrupting the youth). Yes, tragedy represents the floating moral anchor of these times. One of my favorite theater companies, Theater of War, stages readings from classical plays for specific audiences who have encountered the trauma of moral injury, or have been forced to make decisions (or suffer the decisions made by others) that lie far beyond recognizable ethical frameworks and carry severe (and sometimes fatal) consequences: healthcare workers, combat veterans, survivors of domestic abuse. Tragedy has always required a kind of communion, even if it is the communion between the play’s mythic characters speaking through the form of a printed text and the individual reader. Tragedy, when staged before an audience, has a powerful effect as a kind of purgative (cathartic) medicine, as Aristotle observed in his Poetics when he wrote about the function of tragedy on audiences. It is a place to raise the worst fears and cultural anxieties of a people, the hard truths, and a place to release them through collective experience and acknowledgement of their power. And from tragic precedent, the powerful feminine is, apparently, one of a people’s worst and most abiding fears.

In terms of the feminine voice, this is what has always drawn me to tragedy. It is the genre of ancient literature where women have the strongest, most consequential voices and the longest speeches. Yes, they are heavily vilified creatures in these plays: They are the most dangerous figures because they violate the most sacred bonds of kinship. And one could easily claim that these women are not “real” beyond the ancient Athenian male imagination, reflected in the playwright’s choices. There are many empowering revisionist retellings of women from Greco-Roman myth (Zimmerman’s Women and Other Monsters; MacLaughlin’s Wake, Siren; Barker’s The Silence of the Girls; Atwood’s Penelopiad; Hauser’s For the Most Beautiful) but not many of these revisionist authors seem keen to take on the stories of the tragic mortal women who do unspeakable things, and openly deliberate them out of longing, desperation, lamentation, fear.

Pacificas genesis was in response in the Vietnam War and the cultural upheaval of the 1970s (15)I find it dismissive to conclude that these women are to be avoided, or assigned to the “male imaginal” rather than bearing any helpful resonance, for I can find things to love in these women despite their destructive woundedness: Medea’s cleverness; Antigone’s love for her brother; Clytemnestra’s love for her daughter; Hecuba’s leadership, and indefatigable attempts to protect the women of Troy from the ignominy of their inevitable enslavement by making them remember their life before the Greek victory over their city.

In this historical moment when the gender binary is being placed into its prolonged historical context and being interrogated for its failed essentialism, I look to tragedy as a source for the voice of the “feminine” (a psychic category often represented by the experience of women, but belonging to all genders) as a necessary voice that reminds us that our ancestors and we too live under the legacy of the millennia of social, political, and psychological consequences of (binary) gender constructs. It haunts us, and will continue to do so until Euripides’ speech of Medea on the plight of women, striking in its very contemporary intersectional feminist sensibilities, can no longer be understood, and ceases to be relevant. I hope this day will come, but it is not today.

So in short I think the feminine voice is alive and well, more conscious of itself and its spectrum of messages and guises than ever before. It is the fierce defender of reproductive rights, it revises old mythic narratives about women to recast hollow or villainous female characters to add a counterbalance to the old stereotypes, and it acknowledges the legacy it inherits. Does the “feminine” voice need to be consistent, or monolithic? No. Does it always come from woman-identified folks? No. Does every woman in power need to be agreed with in her political stances and decisions? No. I am conscious that I am delivering this message to you the day following Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth II’s death. I know some who are in shock, or mourning, as many of my elders cannot remember a time prior to her 70-year reign. I am also aware of folks who are traumatized by the lamentation of those who do not seem to acknowledge that for many the Queen carries with her a perpetuated legacy of enslavement and colonialism. The powerful feminine is a divisive force as well as a unifying one, and the women of tragedy, by reminding us of their own stories, shed light on this.

Angela: Thank you for sharing so generously about your perspective and work with us. What is it you most look forward to in the coming year at Pacifica? Any publishing or research projects underway for you?

Emily: I will keep this brief, in the wake of my previous prolonged responses! I very much look forward to welcoming our Myth students to campus for the first Fall on-site residential session since 2019! I love the autumnal energy of a fresh start, and cannot wait to commence teaching, and learning from, our incoming first-year students.

In terms of writing projects, I am currently working on an article on the relationship between emotion, hallucinatory vision, and gender in Euripides’ Bacchae for a collection to be published by the Journal of Cognitive Historiography—indeed, veering away from the familiar territory of my PhD research, but I am still indulging my interest in emotions, and since I arrived at Pacifica, I am feeling very supported in engaging with my long-held passion for the perennial lessons of Greek tragedy in my research.

And as you mentioned, I do have an ongoing project on women’s self-narratives in Greek tragedy, and I look forward to sharing some thoughts about this topic with a few case studies at “Portals to the Imaginal” next month!

Angela: Thanks so much for speaking with me.

Emily: Thank you, Angela, for inviting such a rich dialogue!

Please join us October 7-9 for “Portals to the Imaginal: Re-Visioning Depth Psychology for the 21st Century.” For more information, click here.


Angela Borda is a writer for Pacifica Graduate Institute, as well as the editor of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Her work has been published in Food & Home, Peregrine, Hurricanes & Swan Songs, Delirium Corridor, Still Arts Quarterly, Danse Macabre, and is forthcoming in The Tertiary Lodger and Running Wild Anthology of Stories, Vol. 5.


Emily Chow-Kambitsch, Ph.D, is Co-Chair and an Associate Core Faculty member of the Mythological Studies Program. A scholar, poet-storyteller, and native of Santa Barbara, her lifelong exploration of classical mythology is rooted in the study of Greek and Latin language and literature. At Pacifica she teaches courses in Greco-Roman myth, ritual studies, memoir and self-writing, research approaches, and dissertation formulation. She is passionate about supporting students’ connection with the perennial stories that call to them through academic, artistic, and personal lenses.